XTERRA Triathlons by Jimmy Riccitello
By Jimmy Riccitello
Here’s some advice for all you triathletes out there: doing XTERRA triathlons will make you a better triathlete. However, you should know that XTERRA IS a triathlon. XTERRA is NOT a road triathlon. This distinction is important as more and more of us “road” triathletes give XTERRA , or “off-road triathlon,” a try.
“How different can XTERRA be?” you might ask yourself. It’s still a triathlon, after all. Let me just tell you this: XTERRA is a lot different than road triathlon. The subtle differences of riding and running off-road require more changes to your normal routine than you might think.
Fortunately for you readers, I’ve come up with a list of dos and don’ts that should spare you some pain and embarrassment when you do your XTERRA . And in case you’re wondering, I found most of these things out the hard way.
Do wear gloves, bike shorts, and a jersey or top. I strongly recommend gloves. You need grip for the handlebars, shifters, and brake levers, and you need protection should you spontaneously dismount your bike (crash). You need bike shorts for added crash protection and to prevent chafing. Chafing is more of a problem in Xterra racing because you often have to cross streams or puddles leaving your legs and crotch area wet. Without bike shorts your inner thighs will get rubbed raw. Most clothing companies make cycling style shorts that you can also swim in. These are perfect for your race outfit. A jersey is necessary because you need to carry more “stuff” and the jersey pockets offer you that option. A jersey also offers crash protection.
Don’t compete in an XTERRA wearing nothing but a swimsuit. In fact, you should never compete in anything except a swim meet or a beauty pageant while wearing only a swimsuit. All you road triathletes who live to run around town 3/4 naked, showing off your chiseled bodies and mdot tattoos, are just going to have to get over it. Put some clothes on.
Do wear eyewear and a visor on your helmet. Eyewear is necessary and should be required, in my opinion, for XTERRA racing. In a road triathlon, eyewear is worn primarily for protection from the sun and wind. Off-road eyewear is worn for debris protection and vision enhancement.
A lot of debris is thrown up by your competitor’s tires when riding on a trail. If you get something in your eye while riding on the road, it’s easy to take a hand off the bar and wiggle the irritant out of your eye. Due to the technical nature of off-road riding, however, taking one hand off the handlebar is often not possible. It’s awfully hard to ride on a twisty, technical trail with one eye closed.
In addition, light conditions change much more frequently while riding off-road verses road, and it’s very important to be able to see obstacles on the trail. One minute you’re riding under a canopy of trees; the next minute you’re in clear and sunny conditions. You should seek out eyewear that allows for multiple lens choices.
A visor on your helmet will also help enhance your vision. Make sure you buy a helmet with an adjustable visor. This way you can pull the visor down to keep the sun or rain out of your eyes, or lift the visor out of the way while in shady light conditions.
Do use a mt. bike. I know this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised. A lot of road triathletes think they can “ aero” their way around any course. Here’s a tip: aerodynamics don’t mean a whole lot when your average speed is 10-12 mph, which is what the top professionals average. Instead of worrying about aerodynamics, invest in a good dual suspension, x/c mt. bike, such as the K2 Razorback SL.
The mt. bike segment of XTERRA is as much about one’s technical abilities as it is about one’s fitness. A good mt. bike will make it easier for you to maneuver around the course. Most dual suspension mt. bikes are so light now that it doesn’t make sense to buy a hardtail. Plus you can lock out the rear suspension on most bikes, giving you the best of both worlds. I use my dual suspension bike on all courses—even the smooth ones.
Do use trail shoes, or at least an aggressive soled training shoe. Most of the run courses in XTERRA events are even more technical than the bike course. A trail shoe has a number of advantages over a normal running shoe. The outsole has better traction; the midsole is lower to the ground, which increases your ankle stability; the midsole is a little stiffer, which also aids stability; and the upper is more supportive and durable, just to name a few. When you’re boulder hopping, running over roots and rocks, or through streams and mud, you will want a shoe that’s designed specifically for these things.
Don’t wear your lightweight racing flats. Racing flats are made for smooth road and fast running. The midsole is soft and light, which means you will feel every pebble on the trail. Traction is minimal and will leave you stranded if you have to scramble up a muddy hill. Because there is so little “shoe” with a racing flat, I’ve literally seen people run right out of their skids in wet or sticky conditions and never find the shoe again because it’s buried deep in a quagmire.
Do lube up with Vaseline, Body Glide, or a similar lube. Because you’re in and out of wet conditions during the bike and run much more during an XTERRA, chafing is more of an issue. I put lube in all the trouble spots when I’m preparing my gear and body before the race. I grease up my toes before the race to minimize blisters during the bike and run. I grease up my crotch to prevent chafing. Nothing ruins my day more than a chafed crotch. I grease up my neck a little so it doesn’t get raw during the swim. Finally, I grease up my armpits so they don’t chafe while I’m running.
Don’t use your hands to grease up with right before the start. The grease on your hands and fingers will not completely wash off during the swim, and it will be extra hard to hold onto the handlebars during the race. If you’re planning to wear full-fingered gloves, which I recommend, you don’t have to worry about the grease as much. The best solution is to get someone else to rub you down with lube, or put some cheap rubber gloves on if you’re applying the lube yourself. And don’t use KY Jelly as lube. I know it comes in a handy “squirt” bottle, but it’s water-soluble and will wash off in the water leaving you chafe prone. I don’t know this from experience—I’ve just heard...
Do carry extra food. You run a lot “hotter” in XTERRA races. The terrain mandates that you occasionally go into the red zone simply to make it over hills or obstacles. This may make you bonk sooner than you would in a road triathlon where the effort is much more consistent. This is another reason to use a bike jersey. The back pockets are handy for food. I usually carry 4 gels for a 30kilometer Xterra bike segment. I plan for 200 calories per hour, and I plan on the bike rides taking me about 2 hours. It’s better safe than sorry if you over estimate your caloric needs. It only takes one mishap to find yourself out on the trail much longer than you had planned. Carry extra.
Don’t rely on aid stations for your calories. While the aids stations are plenty and fully stocked, as I indicated above, you may find yourself stranded in between aid stations due to a mechanical failure (bike or body). Plan for the worst, and always be self-sufficient just in case.
Finally this tidbit of advice from the “father” of XTERRA , Scott Tinley: “Do do an XTERRA , and don’t fall off your bike.”
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